Last week’s release of the Freeh Report, assigning responsibility for Penn State’s failure to act on reports that Jerry Sandusky was sexually abusing boys, has people talking about whether the NCAA should shutter Penn State’s football program. That would be setting our sights too low. For the good of both universities and athletes, we should end the NCAA cartel and get high-level football and basketball off all college campuses, not just Penn State.
What the NCAA does is fundamentally abusive: it holds the wage for minor league football and basketball players down to zero, under the pretense that its workers are students. The person who put this best was Robert Barro (my father), writing for Bloomberg Businessweek in 2002 that the NCAA is America’s most effective monopoly:
The NCAA is impressive partly because its limitations on scholarships and other payments to athletes boost the profitability of college sports programs. But even more impressive is the NCAA’s ability to maintain the moral high ground. For example, many college basketball players come from poor families and are not sufficiently talented to make it to the NBA. Absent the NCAA, such a student would be able to amass significant cash during a college career. With the NCAA in charge, this student remains poor. Nevertheless, the athletic association has managed to convince most people that the evildoers are the schools that violate the rules by attempting to pay athletes rather than the cartel enforcers who keep the student-athletes from getting paid.
Football is even worse: it has the same labor dynamics as basketball, and is also bad for players’ health. Yet these enterprises are hugely profitable for universities, in part because labor costs are held so low. And that makes it difficult for university administrators to rein in their athletic programs, as we saw when Penn State’s administrators let Joe Paterno overrule them about notifying the state of Sandusky’s behavior. Football was the lifeblood of Penn State, so it was more like Paterno was the university president’s boss than vice-versa.
There is demand for minor league basketball and football, but there’s no need for it to be tied to universities, or for the leagues to abuse their workers. By spinning off these profit centers, universities could return to their educational missions, and treat athletics the way the NCAA’s Division III does: as an amateur activity to complement students’ education.